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In this article, we answer the question what is CBD? Here, a man is shown with a dropper full of CBD oil
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What is CBD? What You Need to Know About Cannabidiol

CBD seems to be everywhere these days, but many people are still wondering: what is CBD?

Nov 20, 2018 - Anna Wilcox

Photography by Georgia Love for Herb

In this article, we answer the question what is CBD? Here, a man is shown with a dropper full of CBD oil

Photography by Georgia Love for Herb

What is Cannabidiol (CBD)?

There’s more to cannabis than a psychoactive “high.” Marijuana resin glands are home to a multitude of chemical compounds. In fact, the crystal-like trichomes that adorn cannabis flowers are like tiny chemical factories. In total, the herb can produce over 500 unique chemical compounds. Cannabidiol (CBD) is one of them. Unlike the famous tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), however, CBD does not cause intoxication. Instead, many consumers find that they feel clear-headed and calm after consuming the supplement.

CBD belongs to a class of chemical compounds called cannabinoids. The cannabis plant can produce over 100 of these chemical compounds in all. Cannabinoids are also thought to be produced mainly by the cannabis plant, though researchers have been exploring other plants and fungi that may produce similar compounds. Both psychoactive marijuana and hemp plants can produce these compounds. Plants cultivated for human consumption, however, tend to produce more cannabinoids than hemp plants grown for fiber or seed.

The cannabis plant produces cannabinoids and other phytochemicals in order to protect itself from predators. The wide range of chemical compounds in the herb can also mitigate damage from UV rays, prevent pathogenic infections, and attract pollinators to its flowers. In a way, compounds in cannabis oil, like CBD, act as both an external immune system and communication network. Cannabinoids protect the plant from harm while aroma molecules in oil entice beneficial insects.

Evidence suggests that, for the cannabis plant, CBD is both an antimicrobial and an antioxidant. While these traits help the plant survive, they may also be beneficial for human health. A growing body of research is showing that CBD holds potential as a valuable medicine for a wide range of conditions, from epilepsy to stress.

What Does CBD Do?

Simply stated, CBD does quite a lot. First and foremost, the compound is a stress-reliever. Emerging research suggests that CBD may have surprising effects on mood and anxiety. In early animal trials, the cannabis compound has proved successful as an anti-anxiety tool, perhaps even easing fear associated with traumatic memories. The molecule may also have some general first-aid properties. CBD is expected to be a potent anti-inflammatory, antimicrobial, and analgesic, reducing uncomfortable aches and pain.

While there may be numerous benefits to CBD as a general over-the-counter remedy, the compound may also be useful to those with serious diseases. As with all cannabis medicines, there is still much to learn about CBD. However, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has already approved the use of a prescription drug made from cannabis-derived CBD. The drug, called Epidiolex, may successfully treat two rare forms of epilepsy, Dravet and Lennox-Gastaut syndrome. Currently, the compound is being studied for its potential in treating psychosis and schizophrenia. It is also being studied, in combination with THC, as an add-on treatment to improve outcomes in patients with certain types of cancer.

How Does CBD Work?

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Professor in Pharmaceutical Sciences Dr. Mohammed Mroueh performs a cannabis oil extraction simulation at his laboratory in the Lebanese American University (LAU) branch near the northern Lebanese city of Byblos on July 24, 2018. (Photo by Joseph Eid/AFP/Getty Images)

To understand how CBD works, you’ll need to dive into a little science. CBD is able to produce medicinal effects because it engages with a unique cell signaling network within the human body. That network is called the endocannabinoid system (ECS), and it was named after the cannabis plant. As a cell signaling system, the ECS can be compared to a traffic cop that coordinates movement at a busy intersection. Specifically, the ECS coordinates communication between the central nervous system and the body’s peripheral and visceral organs. The ECS also plays a role in immune function, assisting in response to injury and infection.

The ECS itself contains a number of different parts, including cell receptors, chemical messengers, and the enzymes that create and break down these chemical messengers. Cell receptors, called cannabinoid receptors, sit on the surface of nerve cells, organs, and immune cells. These receptors are “activated” by chemical messengers called endocannabinoids. The prefix endo meaning inside. In contrast, the cannabinoids produced by the cannabis plant are phytocannabinoids, the prefix phyto referring to plants.  

Endocannabinoids fit into cannabinoid receptors much like the way keys fit into locks. Once these chemical messengers make contact with their receptors, their interaction triggers a cascade of physiological changes inside of the cell. These changes cause the cell to respond differently, potentially altering the messages the cell sends into its surroundings. These changes could be alterations in electrical current, a halted inflammatory response, and much more. When endocannabinoids are no longer needed, enzymes can break down these chemical messengers so that they stop producing active effects.  

Above all else, the ECS is thought to be a stress response network. By “stress,” we’re talking about more than simply a bad day at work. Rather, in this instance, stress refers to any activity that threatens homeostasis. Homeostasis is the scientific term for optimal balance, or equilibrium, in a system. Exercise, for example, can be considered a stress. After exercise, the body responds by increasing the level of endocannabinoids in circulation. This promotes feelings of bliss, pain relief, and perhaps even inspires hunger.

Similarly, after inflammation caused by injury or disease, immune cells increase the number of cannabinoid receptors expressed on their surface. It’s almost as if these cells are calling out for more endocannabinoids to activate them. In this case, inflammation is the stressor and immune cells try to return to a balanced state by priming themselves to receive endocannabinoids.

Researchers are still exploring the precise ways CBD engages the endocannabinoid system. Based on the science so far, however, CBD works by blocking the enzymatic breakdown of endocannabinoid molecules. By preventing them from being broken apart and recycled by the body, more endocannabinoids are available for your body to use. As it turns out, these endocannabinoids play some big roles in human health and behavior. Overall, the ECS is thought to play a part in:

  • Bone growth
  • Emotion
  • Fetal growth
  • Memory
  • Metabolism
  • Movement
  • Pleasure
  • Pain perception
  • Reproduction
  • Sleep
  • Stress response
  • Temperature regulation
  • Thought

Increasing the level of endocannabinoids in circulation, however, is not the only way that CBD works. Research suggests that the cannabis compound may improve mood by engaging serotonin receptors, the same receptors targeted by antidepressant drugs. The molecule may also reduce pain by engaging with special heat and pain-sensing receptors called capsaicin receptors. Capsaicin receptors were named after the molecule that causes hot peppers to be spicy.

CBD Oil Effects

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Photography by Georgia Love for Herb

CBD may not produce an intoxicating “high,” but that doesn’t mean that the compound won’t have an effect on your mind. In low to moderate doses, CBD oil may promote feelings of alertness and energy. In higher doses, some people find that the compound is more sedative. CBD oil affects mood as well, often lifting spirits and easing anxiety.

The effects of CBD are subtle, however. Often, the only thing a consumer will feel is the absence of some sort of discomfort. Say, for example, you had mild feelings of nausea and fatigue prior to taking CBD. It is possible that, after a few minutes, these uncomfortable sensations may have eased away without you really noticing. In higher doses, you are more likely to notice a substantial effect.

In terms of the overall effects of CBD oil on health, the implications are vast. The endocannabinoid system assists in coordinating a whole host of basic bodily functions. It’s no surprise, then, that CBD can produce a number of wide-ranging health effects. Some of the most well-researched effects of CBD include:

It’s important to note, however, that many of these general effects have only been researched in laboratory settings and with animal models. In the human body, there is still much to be discovered about the general health properties of CBD. The effects of CBD oil can also vary from individual to individual. The cannabis compound may be an effective anticonvulsant in one individual but might not work at all in another. Similarly, CBD may ease anxiety in one person but another may find that they dislike the effects of the cannabinoid. More research is needed to determine when CBD is most effective and when it is not.

How to Use CBD

There are multiple ways to use CBD. While dietary supplements are sold online and can often be shipped around the U.S. and Canada, you can also find CBD products at both medical and recreational cannabis dispensaries. Here is a list of the types of CBD products available right now:

CBD Oil

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Photography by Georgia Love for Herb

CBD oil is sold both online and in cannabis dispensaries. This oil is made by separating resin from plant material and concentrating the resin into an essential oil. CBD oil is specifically made from high-CBD hemp or marijuana cultivars. The CBD oil sold online is extracted from hemp plants. The CBD products sold in cannabis dispensaries are extracted from marijuana plants and therefore may contain small amounts of THC. Though, many dispensaries and care centers may also sell products made with purified CBD.

CBD oil is often placed underneath the tongue or mixed into food. Since CBD oil is a concentrated extract, the product can become quite potent. It is not uncommon for CBD oil to contain 30 to 50 milligrams per serving or more. The activation time of CBD oil is also quite rapid. Extracts placed under the tongue can begin to take effect within 15 to 30 minutes. Though, the oil has been known to halt seizures in some patients in a mere one to two minutes after sublingual application. It is important to keep in mind, however, that every body metabolizes CBD differently. For some, taking CBD oil with food may slow down the activation time.  

CBD Edibles

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Andrew Aamot, president and co-founder of Strava Craft Coffee, adding the hemp oil preparation to beans that will make a blend of CBD-rich hemp oil-infused coffee on April 24, 2018 in Denver, Colorado (Photo by Joe Amon/The Denver Post via Getty Images)

Interested in some stress-fighting edibles? CBD can be infused into foods and drinks just like psychoactive cannabis. Only, these edibles won’t cause intoxication. Instead, they’re often relaxing without causing any substantial changes in cognition. Of all CBD products, CBD edibles take the longest to take effect. This is because your infused-food must undergo digestion before cannabis compounds can be actively absorbed into the bloodstream or lymphatic system. Overall, you can expect a CBD-infused edible to take between 30 minutes and two hours before the full effect is reached. When consuming CBD in edible form, higher doses may be needed to achieve your desired outcome.

CBD Flower

You can also find CBD in specific cannabis strains. Different strains produce different ratios of CBD, some featuring less than 0.3 percent of psychoactive THC while others feature around the same amount of both cannabinoids. High-CBD cannabis flower is typically sold at medical and recreational cannabis dispensaries, though, some online retailers may ship hemp CBD flower to your door.

CBD Topicals

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Photography by Georgia Love for Herb

You can also apply CBD directly to your skin via topical creams, balms, salves, and infused cosmetics. When applied topically, the antioxidant potential of CBD may reduce damage from stress, toxins, and radiation. The compound can also act as a natural first-aid tool, easing pain and inflammation in a localized area.

CBD Tincture

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Photography by Georgia Love for Herb

CBD tincture is similar to oils in that it is typically placed underneath the tongue or mixed into foods and beverages. The primary difference, however, is that CBD oil remains an oil while CBD tincture dissolves hemp oil into an alcohol or vegetable glycerine base. Like oils, tinctures can be quite potent. They also offer a fairly fast activation time, around 30 minutes or so. The activation time may take slightly longer if you consume your tincture with food.

CBD Suppositories

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Photography by Georgia Love for Herb

CBD suppositories are some of the newest products to hit the market. Innovative companies offer either vaginal or rectal suppositories that are infused with CBD or other cannabinoids. These suppositories are intended to ease pain, inflammation, and discomfort in localized areas. Unfortunately, however, suppositories are one of the least researched cannabis delivery methods.

In fact, in the limited experiments that are available, rectal suppositories that contain THC did not substantially enter the bloodstream without the help of some additional chemistry. Whether or not CBD would garner the same results is still to be explored. While the overall verdict on rectal suppositories is out, however, both rectal and vaginal suppositories may be useful for easing symptoms that affect tissues in the immediate region.

CBD versus THC

THC is the primary intoxicating compound in the cannabis plant. Both CBD and THC share some common effects, including reducing nausea, easing pain, and promoting a good mood. There are a few key differences between the two molecules, however. THC can inspire undesirable side effects, like dizziness, paranoia, a racing heart, and anxiety. CBD, on the other hand, can block some of the negative side effects of THC.

Unlike THC, CBD is not associated with a racing heartbeat. The compound can also lessen the psychoactivity of THC, reducing the strength of the overall experience. Further, evidence shows that CBD can mitigate some of the memory impairments that THC can inspire as well as reduce hunger. When combined with THC, however, some of the pain-fighting and relaxing effects of the two compounds can become more pronounced.  

CBD Oil Benefits

Apart from the health and wellness effects of CBD oil, there are many reasons to give the molecule a try. Here are the top 3 benefits of CBD oil:

CBD Oil is Easier to Access

Even though cannabis is now legal for adults in Canada, the herb is still off-limits to the majority of people around the globe. Yet, while accessing psychoactive cannabis may be difficult, consumers in several countries have access to CBD products through online retailers. CBD-curious individuals can have hemp oil shipped to them in all 50 states. The compound is also available to consumers in the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, and in many other European countries. It’s always important, however, to check the laws in your region before ordering online.

CBD Oil Does Not Cause Intoxication

As mentioned above, CBD does not produce intoxicating effects. Instead, it’s possible that you might not notice the subtle effects of the molecule at all. The subtlety of CBD oil is one of its biggest benefits. Since there is no intoxication or impairment with CBD, it’s easy to consume during the day, before work, or anytime when you need relief with a clear head.

CBD Oil Won’t Cause You to Fail a Drug Test

The standard five-panel urine test used by employers often tests for the presence of a THC metabolite, not a CBD metabolite. If you purchase products made with purified CBD isolate, there should be little to no chance of failing a drug test. Products made from high-CBD strains, however, may contain trace amounts of THC. If you are worried about passing a drug test, CBD oil isolates are the way to go.

Medical CBD

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Samantha Brown gives a dose of medical cannabis oil to her daughter Kaylee, 5, at their South Berwick home on Thursday, September 15, 2016. Kaylee has a severe seizure disorder and depends on cannabis oil to control and stop seizures. (Photo by Derek Davis/Portland Press Herald via Getty Images)

CBD is often touted as the “medical part of cannabis.” While this is partly true, psychoactive THC also boasts a fair amount of valuable medicinal properties. Still, CBD is making headlines for its ability to successfully ease symptoms without the side effect of an intoxicating high. Believe it or not, altered mental states aren’t everyone’s cup of tea.

All jokes aside, CBD has some very real medicinal benefits. Many of these benefits, apart from epilepsy, have yet to be formally researched in a clinical setting. Early laboratory and animal experiments, however, offer some clues as to how the compound might be used in the future. 

CBD Oil for Pain

The best pain management from cannabis may come from combining CBD and THC together. CBD on its own, however, is anti-inflammatory and may help ease symptoms related to inflammation and neuropathic pain. Neuropathic pain is caused by damage to the nervous system which causes continuous pain signals to be sent along the spinal cord and to the brain. CBD likely works best for pain related to past injury or inflammatory conditions. For this reason, it’s become popular among athletes and former athletes

CBD Oil for Cancer

Unfortunately, there is no cure for cancer quite yet. However, some early research suggests that cannabis compounds may help improve the outcome of chemotherapy. Recently, a trial of a combination of CBD and THC in patients with an aggressive form of brain cancer found that cannabis treatments appeared to extend the lives of those battling the disease. In addition, rodent and laboratory evidence suggests that CBD might be useful in improving outcomes in breast cancer more so than THC or other cannabinoids.

This early evidence is promising but, before you get too excited, it is important to recognize that all cancers are different. Cancers in some regions of the body may respond better to cannabis medicines than others. Further, there is no way to say for sure how effective cannabis medicines are for cancer without more substantial trials. Cancer research is one of the hottest areas in cannabis science. At the time of writing, however, it is still too early to tell what sort of effects the herb will have on this devastating disease.

CBD for Anxiety

The anxiolytic potential of CBD is a topic of major interest in cannabinoid research. The cannabis compound has already proven itself useful in an early placebo-controlled study in patients with treatment-resistant schizophrenia. The molecule has also been shown to help relieve symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder in animal models. Patients given CBD at a mock speaking event exhibited improved social anxiety symptoms over those given a placebo. While more trials are sorely needed, this early research suggests that CBD is a promising tool for anxiety management.   

CBD for Depression

Thus far, no substantial human trials have been conducted on CBD’s ability to ease depression. Rodent trials, however, have found that the cannabinoid showed rapid-acting antidepressant effects. This may be due, in part, to the cannabinoids ability to engage with serotonin receptors. These same receptor sites are the targets of common antidepressant drugs.

CBD Oil Side Effects

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GW Pharmaceuticals fills bottles of the recently approved drug Epidiolex. (Photo courtesy of Greenwich Biosciences)

While CBD has been used safely even in high doses, it does come with some side effects. These side effects have been reported in drug trials of Epidiolex, which is a pharmaceutical drug made with purified CBD. During these drug trials, patients were given 10 to 20 milligrams of CBD per kilogram of body weight per day. For the 166-pound American woman, that is roughly akin to 750 to 1500 milligrams of CBD each day. The Food and Drug Administration reports that adverse events were much more likely at the 20 milligram per kilogram mark, which is a far higher dose than is consumed by the average individual.

Some of the most common side effects included:

  • Decreased appetite
  • Diarrhea
  • Fatigue
  • Insomnia
  • Sleepiness
  • Poor quality sleep
  • Infections
  • Rash
  • Lack of energy
  • Liver stress
  • General malaise

In general, however, CBD was well-tolerated with few serious side effects. In low doses, these side effects are not as common. Though, only further research will determine the overall effects of long-term CBD supplementation.


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